By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
They all had the fortune--and the misfortune--to be the women who sang with James Brown.
In these women's day, Brown's show was a full-fledged revue: Spots by comedians, vocal groups, Brown's backing band playing on its own, and other singers occupied the time before Danny Ray came out to introduce Soul Brother No. 1--"Are you ready for Star Time?" There was usually one featured female vocalist who'd come on before Brown and sing a few numbers; she'd also serve as a background singer for him, maybe do a duet or two, maybe cover a then-current pop hit while Brown went backstage to change into another outlandish costume.
She'd make records too--mostly singles, mostly extraordinary, mostly overshadowed in sales and on the radio by the man who scored more than 100 chart singles. Her name would appear as the artist credit; the rest of the label would say "Produced by James Brown," "Arranged by James Brown," "A James Brown Production--The Sound of Success." You can guess whose name would appear as the writer's credit; the face pictured on the label would be his too.
With very few exceptions, the Brown women's songs--even their hits--have been out of print for 20 years or more. That's about to change, thanks to a spectacular new double-CD compilation of classic recordings by a dozen of them, James Brown's Original Funky Divas. It's about time the compilation showed up, not just for its musical value but in terms of soul fans' demand for it--Anderson, Collins, and Whitney have all had bootleg LPs of their recordings circulating in the last few years, and both of Collins' albums were re-released on vinyl last year.
But moments from all three singers' records have been showing up all over the radio. That "it takes two to make a thing go right" chorus aside, a break from "Think (About It)" (with Brown gasping, "Whoo! Yeah!") is just about the most-sampled beat ever; a riff from Whitney's "Unwind Yourself," looped by DJ Mark the 45 King as "The 900 Number," isn't far behind it (most recently, it's been the source of DJ Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat"). And Anderson was startled to see her name listed among the most-sampled artists a few years ago--especially since she claims she's never seen a penny of royalties from her recordings.
"Even though I'm very happy that someone loves my music enough to do something with it," she says, "more than anything, I would also like to be recognized financially for the work I've done."
Anderson toured with Brown intermittently from 1965 to 1972 and recorded under multiple names, most curiously Momie-O. ("Actually, everybody calls me Momie-O," she explains.) Then there's "Myra Barnes," the name on two of Anderson's biggest hits--the slinky midtempo grooves "The Message from the Soul Sisters" (Lil' Kim samples its "yeah-ah" moan) and "Super Good." It's also the name by which people knew her in high school, where she started singing in gospel groups.
"When we recorded," she says, "[producer] Walter Whisenhunt said, 'If you can get that one right there to sing me a blues song, I'll cut this gospel for free.' I'd never sung any rhythm and blues, but I was so fond of Shirley Caesar, who had this gospel song--'I never knew joy/Till I met the Lord.' I just changed it to 'I never knew joy/Till I met my man,' and that was the one that started doing something! But I changed my name for that to Vicki Anderson, because I didn't want the church people to find out."
And so she remained on record for five years. "Myra Barnes" only appeared when she got her passport in 1970 and Brown found out her real identity. ("He said, 'Oh, you got a beautiful name! Why'd you change your name?'") Of course, Brown dished out punishments as often as compliments--everyone's got a story about some outrageous fine levied for a trivial offense or an accident of fate.
"You couldn't leave anything on the bus," Anderson recalls. "Absolutely nothing. One time, I left my wig on my seat. James went back there, and he told the driver to throw everything on that bus in the garbage. So the driver came to me--I think the crew had a special Momie-O thing for me--and he said, 'Momie-O, don't tell Mr. Brown, but he had me put your wig in the trash, but I wouldn't do it--here it is.' I said, 'He did what?'
"So, what I did, I put my wig on. James saw me on stage with it, and called me into the dressing room. He said, 'You look good.' I said, 'Thank you.' He said, 'Where did you get that wig from?' I said, 'I don't know where I bought it from.' But I think he knew, This is not the time, because I do not have another singer standing by to take this poor woman's place, and she is definitely going to walk. He never said another word."